Ben Williams grew up with business in his blood. His grandmother Lucille Bishop Smith was an African-American entrepreneur, chef, educator, inventor who raised her three children in Tarrant County while serving as founder and president of her family-owned corporation, Lucille B. Smith’s Fine Foods. One of Texas’s first African-American businesswomen, became the first Black woman to join the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.
Now Williams is carrying on that entrepreneurial tradition by bringing Texas’ first hemp-based vodka home to his North Texas roots. He and his co-founder, Wendell Robbins, launched Highway Vodka in Houston in 2019, cooking it up from scratch in what they call Texas’ first Black-owned distillery.
The two childhood friends and Texas natives had previously co-owned former Third Ward bar Scrappy Brown’s, and Williams leveraged his foodie DNA into working with his brother, James Beard Award Finalist Chris Williams, to open Lucille’s, an acclaimed Southern restaurant in Houston’s Museum District.
Pivoting from bites to booze
Along the way, Williams and Robbins were doing “experimental distilling,” eventually arriving at a vodka featuring a unique mash bill with just three key ingredients—a “unique strain of hemp,” Texas corn, and pure water sourced from a local artesian aquifer.
“All of this kind of started off as a hobby,” Williams said in a statement. “As time progressed, we really got into changing up the mash and eventually settled on using hemp seed as part of the distillation process. It took a while, but we eventually perfected the blend to yield an insanely smooth product with a unique flavor profile. We really believe it’s one of the best vodkas on the market.”
After seeing 500% year-over-year growth during the pandemic, the co-founders have joined forces with global spirits company Infinium Spirits to take Highway Vodka distribution nationwide this year. They’re initially starting that by bringing “the only hemp-based spirit in the country with mainstream distribution” to liquor store shelves across Dallas-Fort Worth and the rest of Texas.
Leveraging a growing demand for hemp-based products
Hemp is hot and getting hotter, which could bode well for Highway Vodka’s chances. The startup cites a recent report by Million Insights which predicts that “while the global industrial hemp market was valued at $4.13 billion in 2021, it’s expected to be valued at $16.75 billion USD by 2030.”
Naturally gluten-free and only 57 calories per one ounce serving, Highway Vodka’s mash is cooked and transferred to the fermentation phase, during which hemp oil forms—something the co-founders says separates Highway from other vodkas on the market.
Once it’s transferred to the still, the hemp oil “acts as one last filtration for adverse congeners, aka the compounds in alcohol that can cause hangovers,” the startup says. Highway is distilled only six times to preserve the nuance of the grain, yielding what its co-founders call “a smoother product that displays a natural kiss of sweetness paired with earthy notes.”
“The finished bottle is a result of our proprietary slow filtration process, which is the first of its kind in the craft spirits industry,” Williams said. “We created Highway’s distillation method and equipment after years of research, so everything we’re doing is truly from scratch, just like the vodka.”
“We want this product to inspire the next generation of visionaries to think outside of the box,” he added. “No dream is too big. If we can do it, so can you!”
Beginning national distribution in Georgia and South Carolina
Highway Vodka is now available at Texas liquor stores including Spec’s Wine, Spirits, and Finer Foods; Total Wine & More; and select independent liquor stores state-wide. Highway has also begun distribution across Georgia and South Carolina, and is available for online ordering at reservebar.com. By the end of 2023, the brand plans further expansion to Maryland, Washington, D.C., Florida, and California.
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